A friend sent me this TED talk the other day. It’s a really fascinating look into how (in very simplistic terms) neuroscience is beginning to ‘hack’ into our brains, and locate exactly where different thoughts are lodged.
The presenter is funny, and tells a good story about how the BBC had latched onto one speculative thing he’d once said about being able to record people’s dreams… and then run a story about it.
Well, it turns out that that’s exactly what a few labs have been working on. Cerf is unwaveringly positive about this development, ending the video with a look to the future when engineers will be able to build machines that allow us to control what we dream about, how artists will be able to remember the images they had while asleep… But what Cerf totally ignores – as technologists almost always do when raving about the future – is the potentially pernicious and invasive use of this tool.
I was reminded of a post I wrote a couple of years back about how sleep is a gift, a uniquely ‘useless’ space that is one of the last bastions of commerce-free space. As I quote there, Jonathan Crary writes in his excellent book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleeps,
Sleep requires periodic disengagement from networks and devices in order to enter a state of inactivity and uselessness. It is a form of time that leads us elsewhere than to the things we own or are told we need.
Thus, as I note:
Sleep is a gift to the self. That moment when we check our social networks for the last time, finally put devices to one side (I dare not say ‘turn off’, or even ‘put to sleep’ – as this is probably beyond what most do to phones by the bedside) is a time to cherish. It is, as Crary puts so well, this beautiful interstitial space between sleep and activity where all the senses that we have dulled by screens and constant distraction are put away. Finally, the bombardment of advertising stops and we begin to listen. To hear what is around us. To think odd thoughts unrelated to shopping. To reflect.
Now, with the possibility of ‘hacking’ our dreams, advertisers will finally be able to get their hands all over this ‘useless’ time of non-commercial activity, and make it ‘useful’. Why waste time asleep! Why not enjoy a wonderful dream, curated by Google, with awesome flights through cityscapes that are now on special offer!
From what I’ve heard from other neuroscientists like David Eagleman, we mess with sleep at our peril. It is vital time when ‘we’ are turned off, and our unconscious gets to its serious and deep work, before the illusion of our identity is switched back on.
Ironically, to mess with dreams would be, I think, to reduce us to mere machines. It would not enhance our humanity, but – with every second of our lives, awake or asleep, torpedoed with digital experiences and calls for consumption – diminish it.
A lot of this ground I cover in Getting High, where I take a (very) deep look at how all technologies are psychedelic (‘soul-revealing’), and how digital technology in particular makes great promises of freedom, while actually enslaving us to the whims of huge corporations.
You can get hold of it from you local bookshop, or online here.